Monday, 26 December 2016


74. Scholar monks seem to have been conspicuous among the book burners of Zen. Some, like Tokusan, burnt their sutras after their great Realisation, as if to signify that they had entered a dimension of being that lay beyond words and concepts. Others, such as Kyogen (Hsiang-yen), consigned their notes and sutras to the flames, not as a sign that they had attained Enlightenment but rather out of frustration with what words and letters had to offer. Now it seems that this Kyogen, a noted scholar of great distinction was, in the eyes of his master, too clever by half. It was said that if asked a question he could easily give ten answers. And so Master Isan (Kuei-shan) challenged him with the question about his real self, the self that existed even before he was born. And Isan wasn't interested in getting a bookish answer. Unable to answer there and then, Kyogen set about racking his brains. Still unable to answer, and though Isan had stipulated he was not to do this, he consulted his books and pored over his notes. All to no avail. In despair and believing he had exhausted his study of Buddhism, he burnt his books, his notes, his papers. He vowed that henceforth he would live as a simple rice-gruel monk and stop torturing his mind. To this end he left his master and went off to a cemetery to tend the grave of a long dead national teacher. And there it happened that in the course of sweeping the ground around the old master's grave his broom picked up a stone and sent it flying to strike against some bamboo with a sudden 'pock!' That sudden, unexpected sound had the effect of clarifying Kyogen's mind and bringing him to a great Enlightenment-Realisation. He thereupon wrote a short verse that began:
          One stroke and all is gone,
          No need of stratagem or cure;
          Each and every action manifests
                the ancient Way.

Interestingly enough, this scholar-monk, having burnt his books and notes in despair over words and letters, now found himself after his great Realisation experience driven once again to take up his pen.  

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